The Slavery of Shame


While some moviegoers will not see a movie until they’ve read the book, I did the opposite this Spring. I saw the movie 12 Years a Slave (Academy Award for Best Picture), then read the book. Ira Berlin, in the Introduction (2012) writes:

“For sheer drama, few accounts of slavery match Solomon Northup’s tale of abduction from freedom and forcible enslavement. Lured to Washington in 1841 from his home in upstate New York . . . Northup was drugged and beaten and sold into slavery within sight of the nation’s capitol. He then joined the mass of black humanity–some one million in number–that was forcibly transported south to reconstruct the plantation economy on new ground, as the center of tobacco and rice in the seaboard states to that of cotton and sugar in the interior. In Louisiana, Northup labored as a slave for twelve years until, in 1853, a dramatic rescue returned him to freedom and his family in the North.”

As a native Louisianian knowing the general whereabouts of Northup’s enslavement, I admit watching and reading 12 Years a Slave with great intrigue – and horror. Berlin continues a paragraph later: “Northup makes clear that the slave owner’s authority could be maintained only by terrorizing black people with relentless physical and psychological violence. Whips, paddles, shackles, and stocks make repeat appearances, especially during the process of reducing the newly kidnapped free man a slave. Stripped of his clothing, nailed to the floor, Northup endures blow after blow to his naked body, with his enslavers pausing only to ask if their prisoner accepts his new status. When Northup demurs, the beatings are ‘renewed, faster, and more energetically, if possible, than before.’ When at last the paddle breaks, his enslaver picks up a rope and continues the assault, until Northup is reduced to silence by the threat that if he ever suggests (he is a free man), he will be a dead man.”

Continuing later in the Introduction, Berlin excerpts Northup’s descriptions of slavery’s domination of personhood: “Ever alive to the nuances of domination,  Northup is especially good at revealing the everyday slights designed to demean slaves and cow them into submission by denying their manhood or womanhood. He reports how slaves learned to lower their eyes, take off their hats, and bare their heads in front of a white man–the ‘down-cast eyes and uncovered head – in the attitude and language of a slave’–and to step back on the sidewalk to allow a white woman to pass. He tells of how slave men were ‘boys’ and slave women ‘girls,’ diminutives ‘applied indiscriminately to slaves even though they may have passed the number of three score years and ten.'”

Always thinking as a therapist, the words of the preceding paragraph about “downcast eyes”, “uncovered head”, and shaming “diminutives” embellished, for me, the “physical and psychological violence” that Berlin alluded to earlier. I thought about Pepperdine psychologist Louis Cozolino’s (2010) observation about shame: “Behaviorally, people in a shame state look downward, hang their head, and round their shoulders. This same state (submission) is shown by your pet dog when he hunches over, pulls his tail between his legs, and slinks away as you upbraid him for some canine faux pas. Similarly, this posture in humans reflects social exclusion, loss, and helplessness.”

In no way do I  mean to equate the horrors of American slavery with one’s “shame state”; or, naively use it as a springboard for psychological discussion. But, I can’t help but think, after watching and reading 12 Years a Slave, how a sense of “shame” can enslave a person – “with relentless physical and psychological violence.”

While “guilt’ and “shame” are very similar emotions, they are also very different. Clinical psychologist Joseph W. Ciarrocchi (1993) observes that “Guilt results from a failure of doing which leaves us with a sense of wrong-doing. Shame results from a failure of being and leaves us feeling inadequate and worthless. Using a football field analogy…guilt (is stepping) out of bounds on the sidelines – trying to circumvent the rules. Shame, on the other hand, results from falling short of the goal.” Ciarrocchi credits Freud in helping us understand this distinction. In Freudian theory, personality includes a moralistic “superego” which involves a sense of right and wrong, ostensibly influenced by parents and/or primary caregivers. The superego, as Freud conceptualized it, is twofold. It involves “conscience” (where one may experience guilt from wrongdoing), and, what Freud called the “ego ideal” or “ideal self” (where one aspires to become all they can, or should, be). Ciarrocchi writes: “If my parents teach me to be an honest citizen, then I feel guilty if I swipe my neighbor’s juicy garden tomatoes without asking. This negative feeling represents conscience. On the other hand, I can live alone and yet feel uneasy about the messy condition of my apartment if my parents emphasized cleanliness and orderliness. In this latter situation, I violated no ethical rule but failed to achieve an ideal.”

Notice the difference between guilt and shame? Notice how easily and inexorably we can feel “shame” – even if we haven’t done anything wrong? Guilt says: “I did something bad.” Shame says: “I am bad.” Guilt requires amends. Shame requires something very different, and may include the need for therapy to help “repair the ruptures” of earlier life experiences.

See my February 6, 2012 blog post for further information about shame. 

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

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